Reprinted from yesterday's late editions

For the season's first performance of Mikhail Baryshnikov's staging of "The Nutcracker," at the Kennedy Center Opera House Tuesday night, American Ballet Theater appears to have put on its best party manners. The entire company, led by Baryshnikov as the Nutcracker Prince and Gelsey Kirkland making her Washington debut as Clart, danced with a gneteel and harmonious verve flattering to the story, the music and the choreography.

Kirkland was enchanting. As a dancer, she brings to the part more refinement, more subtleyt of embellishment, more delicacy of statement than anyone who has preceded her, though it is hard to put out of mind the very special graces of the first Clara, Marianna Tcherkassky, who danced with Baryshnikov in the production's world premiere here last December.

In the matter of interpretation, Kirkland evinces still more individual - and - disarming - qualities. Baryshnikov presents Clare as verging on adolescence, her budding womanhood stirring with dreams of love. The nutcracker toy, transformed by Drosselmeyer's magic into a flesh-and-blood Prince, becomes the embodiment of these dreams, and the agent of her ripening emotions. Kirkland's portrayal shows us Clara not just as a girl with romantic reveries, but as a born dreamer, drifting through childhood amidst clouds of fantasy.

When, at the close of the party scene, for instance, the Stahlbaum family bids farewell to the guests, Kirkland's Clara seems only dimly aware of the bubbing leavetakers, lost as she is in her adoration of her new toy. At the start of the big pasde deux in the snow forest, after the Nutcracker has turned into an adult Prince, she runs from him shyly, almost as if in fear of the dream made real - she's more comfortable with the fantasy, at first.

Kirkland also uses her natural vulnerability - that look of imminent dissolution into tears - as a dramatic resource in this role. Make no mistake, as wispy as she looks, there's steel behind her dancing - the kind of poetic fragility she achieves is the result of exacting technical control. But she's also found that part of her inner self which bears closest affinity to the "Nutcracker" myth, and she deploys it to artistic advantage.

Only in the Sugar Plum variation did her dancing seem, momentarily, uncertain of itself, the steps not quite congruent to the musical phrase. Elsewhere, everything flowed effortlessly and precisely, her lyricism never displaced even with an occasional slip (the Opera House floor seems jinxed for her).

As for Baryshnikov, he's a phenomenon even standing still, because his stillness is pregnant with action and feeling. And when he is moving as he did Tuesday, with that supreme defiance of muscular and gravitational boundaries, his dancing yanks your own spirit along with his in an emotionally thrilling trafectory.

After a year's absence, the production once again confirms the overweening artistic merits of Baryshnikov's conception. There's no room here to do justice to details, but the whole cast did the ballet handsome justice.